Reading French 6 : Verb Tenses

© 2015, Greg Lessard

Time and tense: present and past perfect

So far, we have restricted our perspective to verbs in the present tense. We will now broaden this to include some other tenses used in French. But first, a bit of background. The typical view of time looks something like this.

time_arrow

We usually think of the present as moving through time, leaving the past behind and approaching the future. So we use expressions like: 'we're coming up on the holidays', or 'in days gone by'.

In fact, however, language often treats events in time in a slightly more abstract fashion. We can think of a language like French using a set of markers of perspective, that is, linguistic signals that we should think about events in a particular fashion. These perspectives are very abstract, which means that they can be used in a variety of way. To begin, let us consider the past perfect tense in French. Consider the following sentences:

French English
Elle dort. She is sleeping.
Elle a dormi bien. She slept well.
Elle dort depuis 10h. She has been sleeping since 10 a.m.
Elle a dormi jusqu'à 10h. She slept until 10 a.m.

As you can see, the present tense (elle dort) talks about an event that is going on at the moment the sentence is produced: in this case, right now. On the other hand, the past perfect (elle a dormi) means that the event has concluded at the moment we are speaking.

The role of the past perfect is thus, in opposition to the present, to tell us that something is concluded. So we can use it to tell a story in the past, as the following short text illustrates. Mouse over the sentences you don't understand to see the meaning in English.

Ce que j'ai fait ce matin.

Each of these events is completed before the next begin, so they form a chain. This is one of the roles of the past perfect, to present series like this.

How to form the past perfect

The past perfect is a compound tense: it is composed of two parts, an auxiliary verb and a past participle, as the following table shows. Note that the auxiliary here is the verb avoir conjugated in person and number with its subject

.
Auxiliary Past participle Example
ai chanté J'ai chanté
as chanté Tu as chanté
a chanté Il a chanté
a chanté Elle a chanté
avons chanté Nous avons chanté
avez chanté Vous avez chanté
ont chanté Ils ont chanté
ont chanté Elles ont chanté

Look at the following examples to check your understanding of this.

Past perfect, negative, and interrogative

In the last chapter, we saw how to make a sentence negative: the forms ne and pas (or some variant of pas) are placed around the conjugated verb, as in Elle ne chante pas. In the case of the past perfect, the same rule applies, except that the conjugated element is the auxiliary, so the negative elements surround it, and precede the past participle, as the following table shows:

Positive sentence Negative sentence
J'ai chanté Je n'ai pas chanté
Tu as chanté Tu n'as pas chanté
Il a chanté Il n'a pas chanté
Elle a chanté Elle n'a pas chanté
Nous avons chanté Nous n'avons pas chanté
Vous avez chanté Vous n'avez pas chanté
Ils ont chanté Ils n'ont pas chanté
Elles ont chanté Elles n'ont pas chanté

Similarly, the auxiliary is at the core of interrogative sentences. This may take several forms. In the simplest, the expression est-ce que is placed before a sentence with a simple past, as in Est-ce que tu as chanté?. Alternatively, in the case of interrogative sentences with inversion, the pronoun follows the auxiliary, as the following examples show:

Notice that in the case of the third person singular, the form -t- is added between the auxiliary and the pronoun. This is for pronunciation: it is easier to say a-t-il or a-t-elle than a-il or a-elle.

When negatives and interrogatives are combined with the past perfect, the negative elements surround the auxiliary+pronoun unit, as the following examples show. These are the same sentences we have just seen, but they have been made negative here:

An informal quiz on the past perfect

Here is a short informal quiz that you can use to test your ability to recognize sentences with the past perfect, with or without negation and interrogative elements. A few present tense sentences have been thrown in to keep things interesting. Look at each sentence and type the translation. Remember that this quiz is designed to help you practice. No marks are recorded, so try it until you feel comfortable with the past participle.

Forming the past participle

So far, we have used only -er verbs in our examples. In fact, French forms past participles in a variety of ways, as the following table illustrates.

Infinitive Past participle Example
chanter chanté Elle a chanté.
dormir dormi Elle a dormi.
répondre répondu Elle a répondu.

As you can see, the past participle has the same beginning as the infinitive, but adds a vowel at the end. The choice of vowel depends on the verb class. When reading a text in search of the present perfect, begin by looking for an auxiliary and then check for a past participle by looking for the vowel at the end.

It is especially important to learn the past participles of some of the irregular verbs, since they tend to be used quite often. The following table gives some of the most usual forms. Try to guess the meaning of the example sentence, and then check your understanding by mousing over the sentence. Spend some time memorizing these forms as some of them are also used in other tenses.

Infinitive Past participle Example
avoir eu Elle a eu trois enfants.
être été Elle a été malade.
faire fait Elle a fait le travail.
savoir su Elle a su la réponse.
voir vu Elle a vu le chat.
pouvoir pu Elle a pu finir.
devoir Elle a dû partir.

Auxiliaries and agreement

So far, we have talked as if past participles are invariable, that is, that they don't change form. In fact, this isn't always the case. (Life is never simple!) Auxiliaries can agree in number and gender with another element in the sentence. What that element is depends on the nature of the auxiliary.

First of all, we need to add to the list of auxiliaries. So far, we have looked at verbs with avoir as their auxiliary. In fact, a small number of verbs use être as their auxiliary, as the following table illustrates. Read the sad story, and notice how each past participle agrees with its subject.

Infinitive Past participle Example
aller allé Elle est allée à la banque.
venir venu Son chien est venu avec elle.
arriver arrivé Elle est arrivée à la banque.
entrer entré Elle est entrée dans la banque.
monter monté Elle est montée au troisième étage.
descendre descendu Elle est descendue du troisième étage.
sortir sorti Elle est sorti de la banque.
retourner retourné Elle est retournée chez elle.
tomber tombé Son chien et son chat sont tombés dans un puits.
rester resté Le chien est resté dans le puits.
mourir mort Le chien est mort.
naître Mais un jeune chien est né.
partir parti Le jeune chien et le chat sont partis pour de nouvelles aventures.

As this not very interesting little story shows, the auxiliary être is used with verbs of transition, including movement and change. It is useful to keep this in mind when trying to interpret contexts where these auxiliaries and verbs appear.

We have seen that the past participle of verbs with the auxiliary être agree with their subject. But what about verbs with the auxiliary avoir? Are they always invariable? In fact, no. But they agree not with the subject but with any direct object that precedes them, as the following examples show:

Infinitive Past participle Example with following direct object Example with preceding direct object
acheter acheté Elle a acheté une bague. La bague qu'elle a achetée.
trouver trouvé Nous avons trouvé deux bouteilles. Nous les avons trouvées.
vendre vendu Elle a vendu deux livres. Elle les a vendus.

As we will see later, the agreement of past participles with a preceding direct object can be used to follow the development of a text. For the moment, when reading a text, be careful always to look for such cases of agreement.

Object pronouns

In the module on verbs, we saw that a verb can be preceded by a subject pronoun, as in elle chante. In fact, verbs can also take object pronouns. Just as in English we can say she sang the song or she sang it, so also in French we can say elle chante la chanson or elle la chante. Note that in French the direct object pronoun precedes the verb rather than following it. The pronoun also agrees in number and gender with the noun group it replaces. So her, we use la because it replaces la chanson.

To see more examples of this, look at the following list and try to guess the English equivalent. Then mouse over the sequences to check your understanding.

Note that le and la become l' before a verb beginning with a vowel, as in the last example.

So we see that in the present tense, the direct object pronoun precedes the conjugated verb. But what about the case of the past perfect? In fact, the same rule applies, except that now it is the auxiliary that is conjugated. So, in the past tense, the preceding sentences would look like this:

Notice that the past participle agrees with the preceding direct object pronoun, since the pronoun is a preceding object, as we saw earlier.

Pronominal verbs

When we perform actions, we can perform them on things outside ourselves, as when we eat, or drink, of lift, or throw. But we can also act upon ourselves. We can cut ourselves, or see ourselves in a mirror, or speak to ourselves. This is also possible in French, where it is shown by placing a pronoun in front of a verb, as the following examples illustrate:

French English
Je me vois. I see myself.
Elle se coupe. She cuts herself.
Nous nous admirons. We admire ourselves.

Note that the pronoun agrees in number and person with the subject pronoun, so if the subject is je, the pronoun is me. The following table shows the entire list of preceding pronouns.

Pronoun Example Meaning
me je me vois I see myself
te tu te vois you see yourself
se il se voit he sees himself
se elle se voit she sees herself
nous nous nous voyons we see ourselves
vous vous vous voyez you see yourselves
se ils se voient they see themselves
se elles se voient they see themselves

So what about the past perfect? In fact, the same basic rule is followed: the pronoun precedes the conjugated verb: the auxiliary. The only difference in the case of pronominal verbs is that the auxiliary is être, as the following table shows:

Pronoun Example Meaning
me je me suis vu I saw myself
te tu t'es vu you saw yourself
se il s'est vu he saw himself
se elle s'est vue she saw herself (note the agreement by means of the final e)
nous nous nous sommes vus we saw ourselves (note the agreement by means of the final s)
vous vous vous êtes vus you saw yourselves(note the agreement by means of the final s)
se ils se sont vus they saw themselves (note the agreement by means of the final s)
se elles se sont vues they saw themselves (note the agreement by means of the final es)

And if we add negation, we see that the negative elements surround the pronoun+verb constellation, as in:

Notice the last example in particular. It shows that a pronominal verb in the plural can refer to the situation where two people perform some action on each other. It is the context that shows which meaning is to be chosen. So if we see Ils se sont battus., it probably means that two people beat each other, rather than each beating him or herself, although the second meaning is also possible...

Exploring the past perfect

The use of the past perfect allows us to tell a story. To explore this, read the following short text from the Camus novel L'Étranger and try to determine its meaning. Then mouse over the various sentences to check your understanding. Pay attention to the agreement of the past participles and to the presence or absence of preceding object pronouns.

Nous avons tous pris du café, servi par le concierge. ... La nuit a passé. ... j'ai ouvert les yeux et j'ai vu que les vieillards dormaient ... Puis j'ai encore dormi. Je me suis réveillé ... Peu après, l'un des vieillards s'est réveillé et il a beaucoup toussé. ... Il a réveillé les autres ... Ils se sont levés.

The imperfect tense

We have seen how the past perfect allows us to show that some event is completed. Let us now turn to another perspective, and begin by trying a physical experiment. Hold your hand up in front of you, with your thumb raised. Focus your eyes on your thumb. Then, carefully, without taking the focus off your thumb, check out the space behind your thumb. You will probably see that it is blurry. Now, focus on something in the background and notice that your thumb becomes blurry. You have just used the principles of figure and ground. The figure is the thing in focus, the ground the things which aren't.

Language uses a similar device to distinguish between the things we are concentrating on from the background information. The tense used to tell us that something is background information in French is called the imperfect tense. Its use is often clearest in sequences of sentences, where the focus shifts from the background (the imperfect) to the foreground (often shown by the past perfect). Here are some examples. Verbs in the imperfect are bolded.

French English
Je dormais. Puis le téléphone a sonné. I was sleeping. Then the phone rang.
Le soleil était très fort. Rien ne bougeait. Soudainement un chien est apparu. The sun was very strong. Nothing was moving. Suddenly, a dog appeared.
Nous cherchions la solution, sans succès. Puis Micheline a découvert une possibilité. We were trying to find the solution, without success. Then Micheline discovered a possibility.

So how do we form the imperfect? As the preceding examples hint, we change the ending of the verb, as the following table shows:

Person, gender, number Ending Example
1st person singular -ais Je dormais
2nd person singular -ais Tu dormais
3rd person singular (masculine) -ait Il dormait
3rd person singular (feminine) -ait Elle dormait
1st person plural -ions Nous dormions
2nd person plural -iez Vous dormiez
3rd person plural (masculine) -aient Ils dormaient
3rd person plural (feminine) -aient Elles dormaient

The future tense?

The term 'future tense' is actually inaccurate. As we saw earlier, language tends to show a point of view rather than directly naming a point in time. So what we call the future tense is actually a way to show that some event is conjectured. In other words, it may be true, but we can't be sure, often , but not always, because it hasn't happened yet.

The marker used by French to show that some event is conjectured is the letter -r- inserted before the end of a verb, as the following table shows:

Person, gender, number Ending Example
1st person singular -rai Je chanterai
2nd person singular -ras Tu chanteras
3rd person singular (masculine) -ra Il chantera
3rd person singular (feminine) -ra Elle chantera
1st person plural -rons Nous chanterons
2nd person plural -rez Vous chanterez
3rd person plural (masculine) -ront Ils chanteront
3rd person plural (feminine) -ront Elles chanteront

The future tense ending is added to the base of the verb. In most cases, this base form is obvious, but in some irregular verbs, it is special. Here are some of these special forms that you should memorize. Pay particular attention to the items in bold.

Verb Example Meaning
être je serai en ville I will be in town
avoir Tu auras des problèmes You will have problems
aller Nous irons au marché We will go to the market
voir Il verra la difficulté We will see the difficulty
pouvoir Vous pourrez l'acheter You will be able to buy it
devoir Elles devront arriver à temps They will have to arrive on time
falloir Il faudra partir It will be necessary to leave

To see how the future tense works, read the following sentences and try to guess their meaning. Then mouse over them to check your understanding.

The conditional

Often language works a bit like Lego blocks: simpler elements can be combined to form more complex forms. What is often called the conditional mood in French is an example of this. Consider the following sentences and pay special attention to the verbs in bold:

Notice that the forms in bold seem to combine the backgrounding of the imperfect and the conjecturing of the future. This is shown also by the endings, which include forms like r and ais. The conditional is a way of talking about something that might happen.

Notice also that the conditional and the imperfect can be combined to talk about some event that might happen if some condition is met: IF I won the lottery, THEN I MIGHT take a vacation.

Finally, notice that the conditional provides a means of being more polite. Compare the three following utterances:

As you can see by the English glosses, the imperative is more direct than the interrogative, while the conditional is even more polite.

The pluperfect

We spoke earlier about the Lego model, where two perspectives are combined. The pluperfect is another example of that. Consider the following examples:

Notice how one event (finir le souper, prendre la décision, se coucher) is completed before the next one begins. This is the role of the pluperfect: to show that some event is completed (as in the past perfect), but also that it forms the background (as in the imperfect) for some other event.

Logically enough, French uses the marks of the past perfect and imperfect combined to produce the pluperfect. Study the following table to see how this works.

Person, gender, number Endings (V=verb) Example
1st person singular avais V+é J'avais chanté
2nd person singular avais V+é Tu avais chanté
3rd person singular (masculine) avait V+é Il avait chanté
3rd person singular (feminine) avait V+é Elle avait chanté
1st person plural avions V+é Nous avions chanté
2nd person plural aviez V+é Vous aviez chanté
3rd person plural (masculine) avaient V+é Ils avaient chanté
3rd person plural (feminine) avaient V+é Elles avaient chanté

In the case of verbs conjugated with être like arriver, aller, partir, venir, the past participle agrees with the subject, so one would write: Elles étaient parties.

To ensure that you understand the pluperfect, study the following examples and try to determine the meaning. Then mouse over the examples to check your understanding.

When you are reading a passage, pay attention to how the different tenses interact to give a picture of a situation as it unfolds. French is more stringent than English in this respect, so attention to detail is crucial.

Reading passages

We now have the means of talking about events in a much more subtle fashion, including describing situations in the past, conjecturing about the future, and thinking about possible states of affairs. Use this knowledge to read the following texts. Don't forget though to use the scaffolding we saw earlier:

Also, don't be discouraged if you don't understand everything. Learning to read a new language is not a simple process.

A news story about the employment rate across Canada, from the newspaper La Presse

Le taux de chômage a augmenté de 0,2 point de pourcentage au Canada au mois de février pour atteindre 6,8 %.

Statistique Canada rapporte qu'à l'échelle nationale, l'emploi n'a pas varié en février mais qu'il y a eu hausse du nombre de personnes à la recherche de travail.

À l'échelle provinciale, l'emploi a diminué en Alberta, en Nouvelle-Écosse et à Terre-Neuve-et-Labrador.

Il a cependant augmenté au Québec pour le deuxième mois consécutif, en hausse de 17 000 en février. Toute la hausse est survenue dans le travail à temps partiel.

Au cours des 12 mois ayant pris fin en février, l'emploi total au Québec a progressé de 44 000 ou de 1,1 %. Le taux de chômage n'a pas bougé de janvier à février dans la province, étant resté à 7,4 %.

En Ontario, le taux de chômage est resté stable de janvier à février, à 6,9 %, tandis qu'il a augmenté de 10 à 10,4 % au Nouveau-Brunswick.

Pour l'ensemble du Canada, par rapport à février 2014, l'emploi à temps plein a augmenté de 121 000 le mois dernier tandis que l'emploi à temps partiel a peu varié.

Translation

The unemployment rate increased by 0.2% in Canada in the month of February and reached 6.8%.
Statistics Canada reports that nationally, employment did not vary in February, but that there was an increase in the number of persons seeking work.
On the provincial level, employment decreased in Alberta, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador.
It increased however in Québec for the second consecutive month, an increase of 17,000 in February. The entire increase was in part-time work.
Over the 12 months ending in February, total employment in Québec increased by 44,000, or 1.1%. The unemployment rate did not change in the province from January to February, remaining at 7.4%.
In Ontario, the unemployment rate remained stable from January to February, at 6.9%, while it increased from 10 to 10.4% in New Brunswick.

A literary description from the Camus novel, La Chute (The Fall)

Parlons plutôt de ma courtoisie. Elle était célèbre et pourtant indiscutable. La politesse me donnait en effet de grandes joies. Si j’avais la chance, certains matins, de céder ma place, dans l’autobus ou le métro, à qui la méritait visiblement, de ramasser quelque objet qu’une vieille dame avait laissé tomber et de le lui rendre avec un sourire que je connaissais bien, ou simplement de céder mon taxi à une personne plus pressée que moi, ma journée en était éclairée. Je me réjouissais même, il faut bien le dire, de ces jours où, les transports publics étant en grève, j’avais l’occasion d’embarquer dans ma voiture, aux points d’arrêt des autobus, quelques-uns de mes malheureux concitoyens, empêchés de rentrer chez eux.

Translation

Let us speak rather of my courtesy. It was celebrated, and yet indiscutable. Politeness gave me great joy. If I had the chance, certain mornings, to give up my place, on the bus or the metro, to someone who clearly needed it, to pick up some object that an old lady had dropped and to give it to her with a smile that I knew well, or simply to give up my taxi to a person more in a hurry than I was, my day was brightened. I even enjoyed, I must admit, the days when public transit was on strike, I could take into my car, at the bus stops, some of my unfortunate fellow citizens, prevented from returning to their homes.

Summing up

You should now feel comfortable with the following concepts:

  1. recognizing the past perfect, imperfect, future, conditional and pluperfect tenses
  2. seeing how these forms combine with object pronouns, negation and interrogative forms
  3. understanding the meaning produced by the various individual tenses
  4. grasping how the combination of tenses in a passage produces relations among the various events being described

In the next module, we will look at more tenses and at more complex sentence structures as we progress from words to texts.